Science and archaeology tell us that we are all descendants of Africans. All human ancestors came from Ethiopia. Lucy is the oldest human skull, found in the Afar Depression in Ethiopia on November 24th 1974 is 3.2 million years old. This leaves room for a lot of ancestors! We all have thousands and thousands of grand fathers and grandmothers. To me they live in my genes. It is good to remember them, they have got me here into this body with its unique genetic makeup that has been cooking for at least 3.2 million years.
What I'm going to show in this essay is how and why people around the world in general and in West Africa in specific hold reverence for their ancestors. How do the ancestors influence us and do they still live? If wisdom comes with age and experience and they still do exist then we can learn very much from them all!
Many lifetimes and many stories to be remembered. We need not learn every lesson in life the hard way. We can be warned and guided through life by our elders and our ancestors who have gone through similar life experiences and tests. With their guidance we can better handle the diverse situations of life with more insight. Not onky do our ancestors and elders have wisdom, knowledge and understanding, they also have a great amount of love and affection for us. They desire a relationship with them. For even though they are gone in the flesh, they still live in the spirit.
Igbo people of West Africa rely on their ancestors to really rebuild and progress. It is crucial to honor the ancestors. It is important to build upon the foundations they have left. Marcus Garvey of Jamaica said “a people without knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots.” How can you know who you are if you don’t know who brought you here? The ancestors brought us all here and as a mixture of all of them all into one individual, we must know who they were to know who we are. We may say we are children of the ultimate source of all creation and life (Chineke). But through who are we children of Chineke? Who did Chineke give power to bring us into this world and gave life? The answer is our ancestors. Therefore, we must honor and respect them. To honor the ancestors is to honor ourselves and the ultimate ancestor/source of us all Chineke
In Igbo culture it is well known that when a person leaves this earth they go to Be Mmuo (the land of the ancestors) to be with them. The Igbo are one of the most ancient civilizations on this planet. With recorded civilizations dating to 6000 b.c.. For the Igbo the ancestors are not worshiped but rather they are venerated. One way they are venerated is through the ikenga. Ikenga is a wooden figure that represents ones personal chi(god), ancestors and power of their right hand. This is kept in ones home on their household shrine. It is offered daily sacrifices. (Arrow of God, Achebe)
In Chinua Achebes book Things Fall Apart is mentioned a ancestral feast. When praying Igbo make first offerings to the gods and to the ancestors. Offering can be anything, but for Igbo people kola nuts especially. For kola nuts bring clarity of mind, energy and alertness. When we communicate with our ancestors we can also receive clarity and energy. In the book The Joys of Motherhod by Buchi Emecheta we can read that reincarnation is a reality when the main character Nnu Ego asks her father when he is passing away to “come again.”
It is important of people and cultures all over the world to give offerings of thanksgiving to ancestors. Depending on the region of the earth there are different offerings. Native Americans offered a lot of tobacco. Foods and even things a single ancestor enjoyed in life can be offered. Most of all I feel is respect and remembrance of them is the most important thing to offer. To offer a relationship and to be open to them living through us whether it be in our genetics or in spirit.
Personal, I have been fascinated by family trees, especially my own. I am frustrated when I can only find so many generations of my roots then it comes to a end. I'd like to remember my great grandparent and tell my great grandchildren about them. It would be a amazing thing if humans recorded all the family tree. I feel its important. The old testament shows a lot of lineage started from the first human. In the book The Dark Child by Camara Laye we can read about the Dagara people and how they have praise singers that sing along to their music of a harp praises to all the ancestors of the one they are honoring. It is amazing how many generations of individuals are remembered and those individuals attributes and character. In Igbo culture there is a saying “when people say good things about my ancestors, my head gets big.” They also use chalk at beginning of rituals to connect to their ancestors and gods. Its all about respect and honoring the Ndichie (Venerated ancestors).
What about the evil and bad deeds of our ancestors? Flora Nwapa writes in her book Efuru how a character until his death was atoning for the sins of his father and continually his child was atoning for the sins of his people. This brings up a point of interconnection. This point is humanity. We are not just a individual, we are humanity, undividable by individuality. This is the truth that unity is greater than duality. As individuals we are just part of this giant human family. Efuru is encouraged to sacrifice to the ancestors so that they will turn the heart of her husband who has left back towards home. It is obvious that we influences each other as living beings especially when we share each others company. It is not so obvious but it is a fact that we are influenced by our ancestors who are in another realm!
Egwugwu are ancestral spirits. Impersonated by members of the living community they become a catalyst for the ancestral spirits to works through them. Not only that but the entire Igbo judical sytym is run by the Egwugwu! Imagine that- to be judged, to have court, to have justice served by the wisest of the wise ancestors. The appearances of the Egwugwu can be terrifying. Mighty and terrible are their powers. In the Dagara culture elders don't care about cleanliness or the affections that they thinks young people think they have to put on. Maladoma Some writes in his masterpiece memoir, Of Water and the Spirit: “The aura of the disgust elders love to create around themselves is the result of their unyielding concentration upon the spirits.” This letting go of appearances and conformity to expectations of especially the young people is a quality we can see in many who are renouncing many things that hinder their spiritual progress. The older people get the more they may see clearly what does not matter and begin to see what is really important. To render our hearts and not our garments is a quality of character not seen much in western modern civilization. Becoming obsessed with appearances and looks is childish. Maladoma mentions again that our obsession with outward beauty must be a reaction to the memory of true beauty than a actual encounter with it. And that in this case outward beauty would only be a reminder that of the true beauty of the spirit behind it. But we all know that looks can be shallow and deceiving. One thing in modern culture is people try to keep their faces from showing wrinkles by buying all kinds of 'beauty' products like lotions and creams. There's a Native American saying that wrinkles show all the paths one has token in life. They are seen as signs of age, experience and wisdom.
It is my belief that the present state of restlessness that traps the modern individual has its roots
in a dysfunctional relationship with the ancestors. In many non-western cultures, the ancestors have a intimate and absolutely vital connection with the land of the living. They are always available to guide, teach, and to nurture. They represent one of the pathways between the knowledge of this world and the next. Most importantly-and paradoxically- they embody the guidelines for successful living-all that is most valuable about life. Unless the relationship between the living and the dead is in balance, chaos results.
Maladoma is encouraging his readers to work on this relationship with the ancestors. The Lakota people of North America call Mother Earth grandmother and the sky and spirit Grandfather. Representing a balance and a call to relationship with Earth and sky, matter and spirit. All our relations, the seen and unseen. The ones present and the ones past, and even the ones to come- the future generations-our descendants that we will soon be the ancestors of.